Judge the 32 World Cup sides purely upon the overall standard talent within the squad, and France might be the most feared squad. But despite - or perhaps because of - Didier Deschamps’ strength in depth across the pitch, he’s struggled to decide upon his best XI or formation. The problems from Euro 2016, where France reached the final but Deschamps struggled to choose between 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1, might be apparent again here.
In a team blessed with versatile, quick attackers and energetic box-to-box midfielders, one of France’s key players might be someone completely different - Olivier Giroud. There’s no guarantee he’ll start, especially because he’s such an effective Plan B, but Giroud is perfectly suited to the slower nature of international tournaments, especially in matches where France will play against a deep defensive line. Giroud is perhaps the best player in this tournament at playing with his back to goal, and teeing up others breaking forward from deep. He could bring out the best in more revered teammates.
If he plays, the chief beneficiary would be Antoine Griezmann, top goalscorer at Euro 2016, and available at an inviting price to win the Golden Boot here. He prefers playing in a central position, and will hope Deschamps uses a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation to accommodate him in that role. Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe are likely to play from wide.
But the problem remains the formation. The basic issue is that Griezmann wants a 4-4-1-1 to play centrally, and Pogba wants a 4-3-3 to break forward from midfield. Griezmann isn’t as effective out wide, Pogba isn’t as effective in a two-man central midfield, so Deschamps will probably chop and change between systems. The other crucial midfielder is N’Golo Kante, famed for his energy and tackling skills. However, in matches where France have the majority of possession, he’ll be the midfielder with most time on the ball, and must showcase his passing skills too - which have improved considerably over the past year or so.
Defensively, France will use probably the quickest four-man defence in this tournament, with Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane coming off the back of fine season at club level. France should breeze through the group, but could fall against the first tactically intelligent and technically impressive side they face.
The favourites to join them in the knockout stages are Denmark, a side largely based around the talents of Christian Eriksen. While Age Hareide has sometimes used a three-man defence, he seems more likely to use a 4-2-3-1 formation with two solid holding midfielders to provide a platform for Eriksen to dictate the game. In this side Eriksen does almost everything, dropping deep to dictate play and then charging into the box to provide a goal threat. His set-piece ability, too, could be crucial in tight games.
In the final third, Nicolai Jorgensen is decent at bringing others into play, while Pione Sisto and Yussuf Poulsen offer the width and speed we’ve become accustomed to from Denmark over the past 20 years. They’ll pin back the opposition full-backs, stay wide, and create extra space for Eriksen. Defensively, Denmark appear well-drilled with the full-backs tucking inside well when a four-man defence is used.
Denmark seem more likely to play more reactively and directly than in the qualification matches, and therefore could be well-suited to causing the big boys problems. Their crucial game is probably first up, against Peru, and they’ll hope to be facing a rotated France side in the final group game.
In the absence of the Chile side who thrilled at the last two tournaments, the side that (very narrowly, and somewhat fortunately) beat them to the final qualification slot, Peru, could prove the neutral’s favourites here. The legendary kit helps, but more importantly, Ricardo Gareca has them playing an exciting and open brand of football with plenty of width.
Peru have been handed a massive boost by the news that Paolo Guerrero, their all-time top goalscorer, will be allowed to play in the tournament after a complex tale involving a failed drugs test. He tends to save his best performances for international tournaments, winning the Copa America’s Golden Boot in both 2011 and 2015. He’s now 34 and lacking match sharpness because of a lack of playing time, but he’s always offered a surprising turn of speed in behind, and might be capable of rolling back the years here.
Peru are one of the few sides at this tournament likely to use genuine wingers on both flanks, with Andre Carillo and Edison Flores stretching the play while Peru’s central midfielders dominate possession. That opener against Denmark could be a fascinating tactical battle, although it feels like Peru’s openness could cost them: they kept only two clean sheets in their long qualification process, and while the centre-back partnership is good, they might find themselves exposed at transitions. Denmark will offer more tactical guile.
Rank outsiders are Australia, who progressed significantly as a footballing nation a decade ago, which now seems like something of a flash in the pan, based around a golden generation of talent that hasn’t been replicated since. Their qualification process was a long and unimpressive, resulting in the immediate departure of Ange Postecoglu, whose tactics at World Cup 2014 were ambitious, but whose experimentations in subsequent years proved unsuccessful.
His replacement Bert van Marwijk, therefore, didn’t take charge of a single qualification game and has effectively already been replaced by the returning Graham Arnold. Van Marwijk’s Holland side that reached the final in 2010 were hardly renowned for good football and it appears unlikely he’ll be creating anything aesthetically pleasing here.
Australia’s strength is in midfield, where Mile Jedinak is an excellent physical presence and Aaron Mooy can break forward effectively. Tom Rogic offers more quality in possession but Massimo Luongo, a more energetic presence, might be the order of the day. Robbie Kruse and Matthew Leckie are familiar names from the last World Cup and will work up and down without offering too much creativity.
The weaknesses are at either end. Tomi Juric plays as a target man but doesn’t score much, with Tim Cahill likely to provide an aerial threat from the bench. Defensively, Australia’s record in qualification was very poor, and while the return of Trent Sainsbury and Matthew Jurman may help, both have suffered from injuries, have played little together and simply aren’t accustomed to this standard of football. The full-backs and midfielders must protect them closely, which probably means negative football and not enough counter-attacking threat to cause problems.
There’s a clear favourite and a clear outsider in this group. Peru might offer some exciting football, but Denmark seem better placed for qualification.
See all of Michael's other group previews here:
Group A - Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay
Group B - Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
Group D - Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Group E - Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
Group F - Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden
Group G - Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
Group H - Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal